Why USA held onto LRA man

Ongwen heading to ICC after Uganda, USA disagree on how to handle him

The delay to decide on the fate of former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander Dominic Ongwen is due to a standoff between Uganda and the United States of America, The Observer understands.

Ongwen, who surrendered to the Seleka rebel forces in the Central African Republic on January 6, has been in the custody of the Americans since then.

The US Special Forces were deployed to help the African Union (AU) troops, who include Ugandans, in tracking down LRA leader Joseph Kony. Ongwen is one of the five LRA commanders indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2005 for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Accordingly, human rights groups have been calling on Uganda and the US to hand over Ongwen to the ICC for trial.

“With Ongwen in custody, the door is open for victims of LRA crimes to see some long-awaited justice. He should promptly be transferred to the ICC, which has a warrant for his arrest,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

However, Kampala and Washington have over the last one week been involved in a tug- of-war over Ongwen, who at the time of his capture was the LRA’s second-in-command.

On January 7, UPDF Spokesman Paddy Ankunda told journalists that the US military had handed Ongwen over to Ugandan authorities. A day later, US embassy officials in Kampala disputed that, saying they were still in talks with the relevant parties in the anti-LRA operation. The Observer has now learnt that the delay is due to a standoff. Uganda, sources said, demanded Ongwen, but the Americans would not hand him over yet.

Point of departure

Sources privy to ongoing high-level negotiations believe that both sides are trying to make political capital out of Ongwen. Ugandan authorities believe Ongwen should be brought and tried in the war crimes division of the High court. This move, according to our sources, would be in keeping with President Museveni’s recent resentment towards the ICC.

The president said while in Kenya recently, that he would ask African Union (AU) member states to pull out of the ICC en masse due to its perceived persecution of African leaders. In addition, according to our sources, the move would also help Museveni to assuage sentiments in northern Uganda, where voices calling for Ongwen to be tried within the country, or even pardoned altogether because he was abducted as a child, are growing ever louder.

On the other hand, the US is trying to use Ongwen for accountability purposes to its electorate. Since deploying some 100 soldiers a few years ago, this is the first major success in the hunt for Kony and his guerrillas, and so the US is keen to drum it up. This explains why, shortly after Ongwen surrendered, it was the US State Department rather than the Defence Department that was at the forefront of making announcements.

While the US wants to see Ongwen handed over to The Hague, they would not want to do it by themselves since they are not signatories to the Rome Statute that resulted in the formation of the ICC.

Hence it has taken the US and Uganda more than a week to agree on the next course of action, even if both armies share nearly the same compound at Obo and Nzara in the Central African Republic.

Win-win deal

While the US is hamstrung by legal and political hurdles, sources said the American government has spent the last week contemplating whether to hand Ongwen over to authorities in the Central African Republic, a member of the ICC. According to our sources, although Ugandan authorities were not keen on Ongwen going to the ICC, they were at least receptive to the idea of having CAR hand him over since it would also help Museveni save face.

“By handing over Ongwen to the ICC, the US would have indirectly helped Museveni from a possible diplomatic embarrassment of being accused of referring LRA leaders to the ICC in 2005 and after one was arrested on foreign territory, failing to hand him over, or of attacking the ICC in recent months and then turning around to hand over Ongwen,” explained a source privy to the top level negotiations.

In the end, the CAR route seemed to have been agreeable to both Uganda and the US. Yesterday afternoon, Lt Col Ankunda tweeted that Ongwen would eventually end up at The Hague after all.

“Finally it has been decided. Dominic Ongwen will be tried at the ICC in The Hague,” Ankunda wrote on the official ministry of defence website.

“Dominic Ongwen will be conveyed to The Hague by CAR authorities.”
However, when contacted by The Observer for details, Ankunda said he did not have any.

“You wait for a statement from government,” he said. “What I tweeted was said by [UPDF Chief of Defence Forces] Gen Katumba Wamala in Gulu at a function. The government will make a formal statement.”


© 2016 Observer Media Ltd